An error slipped passed us in production! We mistakenly reversed the “secret code” of B-A-C-H’s musical signature. We said, “B-A-C—all musical note names! Add the note B-flat, or “H” according to German conventions, and Bach had all the notes he needed to spell out his name: B A C B-flat…”
Strike that, reverse it. In fact, B = B flat and H = B natural.
We apologize for this error and have corrected it in the text of this post, and we’ve corrected it in the audio as well.
[Thanks to all the listeners who kindly and gently let us know about this. Happy new year!]
Music isn’t a secretive art. Loud or soft, it demands an audience! But if you peer a little closer, musical history has its share of riddles. We’re donning our detective hats as we winkle out musical secrets large and small—from secret codes to secret scandals, plus a featured release by recorder player Sabrina Frey of music with ties to a secret society!
Let’s begin with a “slithering” ballade, “Phython le Mervilleus Serpent” by Guillaume de Machaut.
We’re unearthing secrets this hour on Harmonia, and what juicier intrigue is there to begin with than secret love?
These days, secret love is unfashionable. If you believe the movies, true love means running through the airport to stop the plane, or declaring your devotion on national television. But in medieval Europe, “courtly love,” or love for an unattainable object, was celebrated in poetry and song.
Let’s hear “Se je Souspir,” a love poem by one of the greatest of the medieval poets and composers, Guillaume de Machaut. This piece is a virelai, a verse form that contains a repeated refrain. In this case, the refrain dwells on the speaker’s secret pain:
If I sigh profoundly
and tenderly weep in secret
It is truly
for you, my Lady.
when you arrange that I do not see your noble form.
Sometimes love is a blaze, and how much more painful (or pleasurable!) if that blaze is kept a secret!
The French court composer Michel Lambert relishes the secret flame in his air “D’un feu secret.” The narrator of the poem is consumed by the flames of love—but prefers his agony to the remedy.
It wasn’t only France that celebrated love gone undercover. We’ll head to Scotland next for two settings of an old Scots folk tune, “I love my love in secret.”
Let’s listen to one more traditional Scottish tune, this time played by Rob MacKillop on an 18th-century “guitar.” We’ll hear “The Secret Kiss.”
[Flowers of the Forest, Rob MacKillop, Greentrax 1998, Tr. 22 The Secret Kiss (excerpt of 3’43”)]
From secrets kept to secrets divined
The Bible’s psalm 139 is a paean to secrets uncovered—our lives laid bare before God. And the Funeral Sentences from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer take up this theme:
“Thou knowest lord, the secrets of our hearts.”
In 1695, Henry Purcell set these words to music for the funeral of Queen Mary II of England, as a quiet conclusion to a service filled with pomp and grandeur. Less than a year later, some of the same music was played at Purcell’s own funeral.
We’ll hear the beginning and end of Purcell’s Funeral Sentences for the Death of Queen Mary. First, a slow and solemn instrumental march followed by the final anthem “Thou knowest Lord the secrets of our hearts.”
Here’s one more setting of the Church of England’s funeral prayer, this time from Purcell’s student Thomas Morley.
What could be more irresistible than a secret code? Most of us resort to decoder rings and invisible ink, but composers have more sophisticated ways to embed hidden meanings in their works—and no code master has done so more famously, perhaps, than Johann Sebastian Bach.
B (flat)-A-C — all musical note names! Add the note B-natural, or “H” according to German conventions, and Bach had all the notes he needed to spell out his name: B-flat A C B-natural, a kind of musical signature.
A host of later composers tattooed their work with the master’s name: Robert Schumann, Arvo Part, Arnold Schoenberg, and Francis Poulenc, to name a few. But it’s most enjoyable to hear Bach’s code, whether accidental or purposeful, secreted in his own music.
Let’s hear Fugue 19, an incomplete fragment from Die Kunst der Fuge, or The Art of Fugue. Listen for the “B-A-C-H” theme!
Maybe the only thing more fascinating than a secret code is a secret society. The Freemasons are one such group, possibly dating back to medieval Europe, and the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a member.
Some scholars believe his opera Die Zauberflote, or The Magic Flute, is a Masonic allegory filled with hidden references to the society. These include recurring uses of the number three, references to Masonic virtues, and the use of the “Masonic” key of E-flat, with its triangle of flats purportedly representing a Masonic candle flame.
Let’s hear an excerpt from Act 1: O Zittre Nicht, Mein Lieber Son, sung by the Queen of the Night.
[Die Zauberflote, William Christie/Les Arts Florissants, Erato 1997, Tr. 6 Die Zauberflöte : Act 1 “O Zittre Nicht, Mein Lieber Sohn” [Königin Der Nacht] (4’44”)]
We have one more secret in song, this time of a more serious nature.
The English composer William Byrd walked a difficult road as a practicing Catholic during fiercely Protestant times. He toed the line, but according to some scholars, he hid rebellion in his music.
Byrd’s Cantiones Sacrae, sacred motets from the late 1500s, have texts that dwell on persecution and deliverance, captivity and betrayal—perhaps representing the experience of a Catholic in Protestant England.
Let’s hear a piece entitled “Vigilate,” a text about lying tongues!
Baroque Masterpieces of a Secret Society
Recorder player Sabrina Frey’s 2015 album trades in [or deals in] secrets—in this case, music penned by composers associated with the Accademia dell’Arcadia, a circle of artists and writers dedicated to the memory of Queen Christina of Sweden, an important patron of the arts in seventeenth-century Rome.
According to Frey, many of these composers wrote their works in secret, forbidden by the Pope to write secular music.
Let’s hear the Adagio and Allegre movements of Giovanni Battista Bononcini’s Concerto for recorder, cello, violin and continuo, in an arrangement by Frey.
Break and theme music
:30, Flowers of the Forest, Rob MacKillop, Greentrax 1998, Tr. 22 The Secret Kiss (excerpt of 3’43’’)
:60, Accademia dell’Arcadia, Roma 1710: Baroque Masterpieces of a Secret Society, Sabrina Frey, TYX Art 2015, Benedetto Marcello: Tr. 24 Recorder Sonata in F Major, Op. 2, No. 12: V. Ciaccona: Allegro (excerpt of 4:03)
:30, J.S. Bach: The Art of Fugue, Sebastien Guillot, Naxos 2006, Tr. 14 Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue), BWV 1080a: Fugue 13 (b) Forma inversa (Contrapunctus 12b) (excerpt)
Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, T.12: La Prime Estampie Royal
The writer for this edition of Harmonia is Anne Timberlake.
Learn more about recent early music CDs on the Harmonia Early Music Podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or at harmonia early music dot org.